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McDonnell is restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons, but a constitutional fix is still needed.
Monday, September 23, 2013
One success Gov. Bob McDonnell can claim is in cutting a path to automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons who’ve paid their debt to society.
But finding the path will be hard for those eligible individuals who already were free when the change occurred, living on the outside with a felony conviction on their records.
It’s a nagging piece of unfinished business as the governor’s term winds down, one indication of how his initiative, though welcome and well-intended, falls short of fixing the commonwealth’s constitutional restrictions on the restoration of civil rights for people whose debt should be marked “Paid in Full.”
When the governor announced his initiative, the state quickly set up a system to carry it out: first to identify eligible convicts still under Corrections Department control, then to process individual orders for restoration of voting and some other civil rights as offenders were released. It went into effect in mid-July, along with McDonnell’s executive order.
It helps hundreds of nonviolent offenders freed each month to return to society with the sense that they have a full stake in it. But for most of the hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders who were no longer in the corrections system, it has changed nothing.
This has not been for lack of will in the governor’s office. The commonwealth just can’t find them.
Virginia doesn’t have a comprehensive list of eligible felons who qualify. They need only register with the secretary of the commonwealth to have their voting rights restored (which is not to be confused with registering to vote, required of everyone before trying to cast a ballot).
But getting the word out to them has fallen to outreach efforts by advocacy groups trying to blaze paths, one by one, to each person affected — a huge task.
And while the system the administration developed has kept the state from adding to the numbers of disenfranchised Virginians, that fix could be only temporary. Once McDonnell leaves office in January, it will be up to the next governor, and each governor in turn afterward, to decide whether to grant automatic restoration of this fundamental right.
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